Sake master, nay, Sake Samurai Elliot Faber reveals why a drink in the hand goes down better with a good story. Here, he shares an exquisite tale with Indran Paramasivam.
The intangibles. So often, they’re overlooked. But just as often, they’re the difference-maker.
A smile and story can’t save a bad drink/meal but they go the distance in making a good one tantalise the palette even more resplendently. In the battleground of alcohol – the length and breadth of it all – Toronto-born and world-destined Elliot Faber is a Sake Samurai, a title whose christening testifies as much to the hallowed traditions that inform it as it underscores the prestige of its attainment. But the katanas he wields aren’t literal. He has earned his roses and bona fides from his fundamental belief in the universal power of drinks as a cultures-spanning, divisions-levelling communal force.
The ‘fine’ in fine dining often gets overplayed to the extent that it gets alienating. In this realm, Faber is the antidote. In the various peaks of his trajectory – being the founding beverage director of the Michelin-celebrated Yardbird Hong Kong; Sake Central, a multifunctional retail space and dining bar committed to serving an ambassadorial function in promoting a meaningful understanding of the mores than underpin Japanese food and alcohol culture globally, Sunday’s Spirits, an independent brand of Japanese alcoholic beverages made in collaboration with handpicked producers; and more recently, leading and authoring the sake programme at the Mandala Club’s omakase concept MORI – he has tempered experience, discernment, and flair with a distinctly human touch that translates exquisitely.
Here, he takes us through his life, times and drinks.
The merits of alcohol are universal, to say the least. But how did you come to be involved in it the way you are?
Even before I was into sake, I was studying to be a sommelier. There was this one encounter I had one day, when I was 20 and on a backpacking trip in Estonia, with an ear infection and totally broke. I had to ask my parents to Western Union me some money, but it was the old days so the money wouldn’t arrive for about 48 hours. With my last dollars, I get on this train to Russia where I share a cabin with a Russian man and his two children, one of whom hands me a flask with some crude vodka in it. Next thing I know, we're all bonding. Wherever I went after that, I was always reminded of how food and drink brought people together at the table. It also dawned on me that everywhere I went, people were drinking and eating something slightly different, and that it all had a culture and a story behind it.
Along the way, I got used to selling esoteric things and making it relatable to people. Sake was something I had good basic knowledge about when we opened Yardbird Hong Kong in 2011. I just kept learning more and more about it as we went along. The aim that Matt, Lindsay – the founders of Yardbird Hong Kong – and myself shared was to emulate the traditional Japanese izakaya experience but make it for everybody.
You've made inroads into various disciplines of alcohol. But when did you first feel the call of Japan, and, by extension, sake?
Japan called out to me when I was a kid, through anime and video games. As for sake, there was this sake brewery in Vancouver called Artisan Sake Maker. It was the first in Canada and one of the first few outside of Japan. One day, in 2004 or 2005, I wandered in and started talking to the owner. He became a very good friend and teacher to me and he even invested in Sake Central 15 years later. That was what bridged my new passion of alcohol with my longstanding love for Japan. Then, when Yardbird Hong Kong opened, I had the opportunity to take it all further.
How do you feel about the universal consensus around Yardbird Hong Kong's undeniable success?
Oh, I think about it every day. I'm proud and honoured. Matt, Lindsay, Raphael, Tara, Stacey, Kenneth and Yoshi are family; we're best friends to this day and I’ve developed so many meaningful relationships over the years with the rest of the team members. We've started other businesses together, and separately. In my opinion, we'll never have times like those early days ever again.
It was a a bittersweet thing to move on but the memories remain and some are still so vivid thanks to our ongoing friendship. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I lost so much material stuff from my home in Canada because I just flew out and essentially worked non-stop upon arrival. I had no idea what I was in for. I stopped talking to people outside of our opening team and worked six days a week, 14-15 hours a day. On our day off, we would go out to brunch, get drunk, sleep in, and see each other at work the next day. We gave it everything.
For me, there's an old Yardbird Hong Kong and a new Yardbird Hong Kong. The new one is built on so much experience; it is the the practical application of something you could pick up and put anywhere in the world – and it'll be a perfect machine. The soul of those early days remains, but there'll never be anything like the original location that a handful of us built.
How does your philosophy of sake translate to your approach to MORI’s menu?
That’s a good question. When I was invited to MORI, it was a conversation that happened over a few months and then the trigger was quickly pulled, almost at the last minute. I showed up on opening night and did one sake pairing with one dish as a teaser introduction to MORI’s menu. I’d just come to Singapore and hadn’t had a chance to get my bearings. I checked out the existing inventory on hand and picked out this slightly cloudy, slightly sparkling sake from Yamagata called Hitotoki. It has a great balance of acidity and sweetness with a contagious sparkle, perfect for the foie gras monaka with ume jelly. Then, we just hit the ground running. We started service the day after and MORI continues to grow into something uniquely its own.
It’s been an evolution. It’s really exciting because everyone’s so motivated to make it the best that it can be. In a lot of ways, the project is still in development. But I feel that the service standards and the sake programme have really established their roots and hopefully, they give a good foundation for the chefs as to what they want to come up with.
What’s special about Mandala is that it’s not a Japanese club. MORI is a Japanese-inspired restaurant but there are no Japanese people working there. From Chef Sean at opening and now to Chef Chun, whose knowledge of the ingredients is better explained than most Japanese chefs because of the language barrier. His experience and pedigree also grant him access to the best ingredients and techniques. Starting with Executive Chef Reuben Davis, the whole team really cares about what they're offering and how to create a unique experience for the members. Although my consultancy has ended, the current team still reaches out for questions and advice. I’m so motivated to respond and interact with them because I feed off of their constant enthusiasm.
One of the most humbling aspects of your career is that you've privileged the ethos and values associated with a product as much as the product itself. Why is that important to you?
That’s a flattering statement! Going through COVID-19, working in Singapore and being at the Mandala Club, developing Sunday’s Spirits globally and seeing from afar what's happening with Sake Central in Hong Kong, is crazy. It's been a crazy journey. Sake Central was meant to be almost generic, as you can tell from its name. You just need to know that we have sake. Drinking is mainstream. Japan, as an idea, is mainstream. But sake is definitely not. The terms, labels and appellations used in sake are so far behind the system in wine that it's tough for a sommelier and/or consumer to understand what they're drinking. But the people making the sake have a rich culture and history. So, my focus was not to amplify the classification or price of the drink but to bring out the stories that shaped and defined it.
My idea was to make consumers understand who the people making the drinks are, where they come from, what values shaped them, and how that impacts why the drink is what it is. If their story resonates with you, give that drink a try. You connect with the makers, and you understand that it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good or special. Then, you can find out what style, classification or grade it is. You build your education from there.
My favourite part about what I'm doing in the sake world – the root of my mission – is showing people that there's a direct correlation between price and process, but not price and quality. There’s a sake for every occasion and cuisine.